Why Unstructured Meetings Are Challenging for Autistic People

I have both a confession and an apology to make. Every primary school report card I ever had included the same sentence: ‘Aron is frequently distracted and often distracts others’. I’m afraid this attribute has followed me into adulthood and is most visible in unstructured meetings. An unstructured meeting is a primary school classroom for me. While I thrive in small talk banter, my autistic colleagues can find unstructured meetings painful, confusing and pointless.  

Meetings are a fundamental part of the way most of us work. While Covid has changed the way some of these meetings now occur, they still serve as a platform for teams to collaborate, brainstorm, and get things done. However, these gatherings can be a source of stress and frustration for individuals with social anxiety, challenges with auditory processing and difficulty with ambiguity, including those who are autistic. Unstructured meetings can be difficult for many, as they often lack clear agendas, purpose and background information for someone to prepare

Autistic individuals often face difficulties in reading social cues, which are essential in communication. They might miss non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone and body language, which are integral to understanding the meaning and intent behind what is being said. These challenges reading social cues can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and confusion during meetings. When colleagues make non-verbal signals, it may be unclear to the autistic person whether they are being asked to speak, are being interrupted, or if they are expected to react in a particular way.

Another challenge that some autistic individuals face during meetings is knowing when to speak up. My challenge is the opposite, as my ADHD brain working on overdrive leads me to interrupt colleagues, clients or anyone in the way of my next point! Neurotypical individuals may naturally understand the dynamics of social interactions and know when it is appropriate to offer input, ask questions, or contribute to the conversation. However, autistic individuals often struggle to identify these social cues, leading to situations where they avoid speaking up when they have something to say or fail to speak as they miss pauses in conversation. Alternatively, some  may speak out of turn or offer irrelevant comments because they are unsure when it is appropriate to contribute.

Meetings without a clear agenda and expectations cause confusion for some neurodivergent individuals and they can have a hard time understanding the purpose and goals of the meeting. This can create an environment of uncertainty, which is uncomfortable for people who prefer routines and predictability. 

Studies have shown that autistic individuals often experience anxiety and discomfort in unstructured social situations, including small talk, and may use avoidance strategies to cope. This is sometimes referred to as “small talk avoidance” or “small talk anxiety”. Examples may include being routinely late to team meetings or a preference in virtual meetings to turn off the camera. This can have negative consequences for both the individual and the team. For example, if an autistic employee consistently misses important information or introductions during the first few minutes of a meeting, they may not be able to contribute effectively to the discussion. Managers and colleagues can misinterpret lateness as a lack of organisation or commitment to the team.

To address these challenges, managers and colleagues with a few simple steps can design meetings that are inclusive for everyone. Firstly, anyone setting a meeting can take steps to ensure that meetings are structured and have a clear agenda. By outlining the purpose, topics to be discussed, and desired outcomes, all attendees can better understand the expectations of the meeting and how they can contribute. 

Another effective strategy to support neurodivergent individuals in meetings is to provide clear communication and instructions. Providing written instructions or emails before the meeting can help to prepare the individual for the topics to be discussed, allowing them to process the information and formulate their ideas. Employers and colleagues can also encourage participation from all attendees by creating pregnant pauses in conversations to allow individuals to speak up, asking questions and soliciting input from everyone in the group without putting them on the spot by giving time warnings. For example, ‘I’d like to hear your thoughts Claire in a few minutes’. 

Unstructured meetings can be challenging for neurodivergent individuals, particularly those who are autistic. By providing a structured environment, clear communication, and inclusive participation, employers and colleagues can create a supportive and inclusive environment for all attendees, allowing everyone to contribute to the success of the meeting.

Why not start today and create an agenda for your next meeting if you don’t do so already. Remember small changes can make a big difference.